Advice from C.S. Lewis on Learning in a Time of Calamity

NYTIME there is national or international turmoil we rightly revaluate our priorities. How should we consider education when other matters loom large? C.S. Lewis responded to this question in a sermon he preached in 1939 in the early stages of War World II.

Dr. Thom Mach, vice president for academics at Cedarville University, spoke on the following passage from Lewis in a chapel service last year. Our school also shared the excerpt in an email to our student body to offer encouragement. I thought it might be helpful to feature here as well. If you are a university student wondering what priority you should give to higher education during challenging times, consider Lewis’s words:

“… I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.

But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Humans are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature….”